Could logjam at striker be plaguing Union?


Friday, June 24, 2011
Posted: 10 a.m.

By Dave Zeitlin Contributor

CHESTER, Pa.How many strikers can one team successfully shuffle in and out of the lineup?

It appears Philadelphia Union manager Peter Nowak is trying to find out.

With Carlos Ruiz back with the Union after a month away leading the Guatemalan national team in the Gold Cup and Serbian Veljko Paunovi having started the past two games after being signed early last week, the Union have six strikers on their roster, five of whom are either regulars or trying to become regulars.

Nowak found a way to get four of them in the starting lineup for Wednesdays game against Sporting Kansas City, starting Ruiz and teenager Jack McInerney up top while dropping Paunovi and Sebastien Le Toux back into the attacking midfield. The fifthleading scorer Danny Mwangawas out with a minor knee bruise.

The ironic part is even with so many offensive players on the field, the Union failed to score for their second straight game and now limp into Saturday nights game against Chivas USA winless in their last four.

Or maybe its not ironic at all. Maybe switching around the lineup every game hurts the team more than it helps. Maybe the Union have too much offensive depth for their own good.

For this team, no one has a secure position, said Ruiz, who denied rumors this week that hed be joining a Mexican team in July when the transfer window opens. Its a fight every day to play in the first 11.

Nowak has said multiple times this week that he hopes to get lots of different players on the field, so everyone can stay fresh and rested. The plan is sound in logic and certainly makes sense considering the Union have played fewer players this season than any other team in Major League Soccer and are also in the midst of a three-games-in-eight-day stretch.

But shuffling your lineup like a deck of cards also comes with an inherent risk, one that brings up unavoidable questions. Is Nowak alienating certain players? More to the point, are the right guys being rested?

Theres been a growing feeling of discontent among Union fans of late that Mwanga has been underused this season. Despite leading the team in goals, the second-year striker has started less than half of the clubs game and ranks 11th on the club in minutes played.

Mwanga, who hopes to return to the lineup Saturday against Chivas, admitted that he wants to play every minute but has grown accustomed to not knowing whether or not hell start on any given day. He says hes fine with that, even if many of his fans are not.

We have a lot of offensive players, which is a positive thing to the team, said Mwanga, the top overall pick in the 2010 MLS SuperDraft. We were struggling in the beginning of the season offensively. Having guys help usits a good thing. Now its just up to us to try to get the chemistry together and learn how to play together.

But how can they all play together? Nowak typically only plays two strikers at a time, but he also doesnt seem inclined to leave Le Toux, Mwanga, Ruiz, Paunovi or McInerney out of the mix. And you can certainly find a lot of value in each. Take a look:

Le Toux has played every minute this season and was the teams star attraction last season.

Mwanga is a reigning MLS Rookie of the Year finalist and has the potential to be a superstar in this league and beyond.

Ruiz is one of the all-time leading scorers in MLS and has the ability to score goals few other players can.

Paunovi is a proven veteran of Spains La Liga and a longtime professional who Nowak believes brings versatility and consistency to the offense.

And McInerney is a rising star and a natural goal-scorer, if still mostly unproven at the professional level.

So is there a logjam at striker?

I think its always a good thing to have options, Nowak said Tuesday, dismissing the notion. We can mix things up, create a different look and make other teams guess whos going to be playing. All of them have different qualities. We feel like they can change the outlook of the game. Thats the advantage of the whole situation.

The next day, Nowak certainly mixed things up by playing four of his forwards in the same game. But while the Union had many chances to score, they did not get a goal. And in the process, rising midfield stars like Kyle Nakazawa and Michael Farfan were left out of the mix.

For what its worth, Union players have all said the same thing, agreeing that having a lot of strikers is a good thing and that competition between them all in practice, as long as its healthy and clean, will bring out the best in each of them.

But as the offense continues to sputterdespite enjoying a six-goal game last month, the Union rank right near the bottom of the league in goalswill Nowak continue to try to switch around his lineup or will he be forced to make some hard decisions and settle on a steady offensive group?

And, if so, whos going to emerge and whos going to be left behind?
Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for and writes a weekly Union column for You can e-mail him at

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